Jalen Pickett is on the cusp of a significant moment in his life.
He's weeks away from playing in his first NBA game, Denver's preseason opener against the Phoenix Suns. It's a moment he's been waiting for since getting drafted by the franchise 32nd overall in June—and really, a moment he's dreamt of since first touching a basketball.
Pickett's a polished hooper, well aware of his strengths and weaknesses. And he knows how to leverage both to be a ready-made pro. He's worked hard this summer to improve one specific skill in preparation for his big Nuggets debut.
"Definitely just getting adjusted to the three-point line. It's a little further back, just trying to expand my range," Pickett told Nuggets.com. "That's gonna be the biggest adjustment from college to here."
Five collegiate seasons allowed Pickett to precisely carve out a niche for himself and craft a versatile and steady skillset. He's an efficient player who can score from three levels of the floor—at the rim and on floaters, the midrange, and from a distance. He's a natural-born playmaker with passing chops that prop up the rest of his game. Most of all, he's a maestro in the pick-and-roll, capable of dictating terms in the halfcourt so that defenses give him exactly what he wants.
The final step, and one that he passed with flying colors in Las Vegas Summer League at 42.9 percent accuracy, occurs behind the NBA three-point line. As Pickett mentioned, the NBA three-point line is further out than in college (Pickett shot 38.1 percent from deep in his fifth and final season at Penn State). That's part of the adjustment.
But a consistent NBA three-ball could be the final step in unlocking a truly lethal pick-and-roll game.
Because of how crafty Pickett is in the halfcourt as a scorer and passer, defenders will try to go underneath ball screens to shortcut his pick-and-roll game.
On this play, Atlanta's Vít Krejčí goes under Ismaël Kamagate's ball screen to meet Pickett on the other side. Initially, Krejčí's defense appears effective, as Pickett is stopped in his tracks. But then Jalen unfurls a counter, his NBA-ready three-ball, nearly dropping Krejčí to the floor with an in-and-out dribble and then twining an off-the-dribble three-pointer.
Pickett was so successful as a shooter in Summer League that opponents began to change how they defended him. Going underneath screens was untenable; the 23-year-old was just too proficient at nailing long-range pull-up shots.
Later in that very same game against Atlanta, Pickett and Kamagate set up for a pick-and-roll. This time, however, Pickett's defender, AJ Griffin, went over the top of Kamagate's screen due to the threat of Pickett's pull-up three-pointer.
Jalen was then given an array of selections to pick from with just one man between him and the basket. He could continue dribbling toward the rim for a close-up shot. He could slip in a bounce pass to a rolling Kamagate. A pass to Andrew Funk in the corner was certainly on the table. Or, he could pull up on a dime for a midrange jumper. Pickett selected the latter of the four and confidently canned the midrange look.
Throughout Summer League, Pickett mentioned he was adjusting to the pace of the NBA game. But "pace" can have many meanings. By "pace," did he mean how fast NBA players operate? Or did "pace" refer to how quickly teams get into their sets? Or perhaps the quickened "pace" related to the shot clock, which is a full 6 seconds shorter in the NBA compared to college basketball.
"The shorter shot clock is what I mean," Pickett told Nuggets.com. "People play with better pace. And then a lot of guys, they start off very fast and they go slow. So, just getting accustomed to the speed and trying to figure out what I can do at these spots."
Preparing for that type of adjustment is unique. It isn't necessarily skill-based like some other types of training. Jalen's not improving his dribbling package by mastering specific combinations of moves, for example. He's not enhancing his offensive game by honing in on a consistent jump shot through sheer repetition. Rather, it's something that's simply felt across the board as a scorer, passer, and leader of the offense. To put things bluntly, it's a wholesale change to the way he approaches the game of basketball. A mindset alteration. It all has to do with feel.
But how exactly does one go about that type of adjustment?
By observing. Studying. Modeling his game after the greats.
"Just watching a lot of film," said Pickett. "Picking up people's tendencies."
He also mentioned that he's picked the brains of the veterans on his brand-new team. Asking questions. That's another component of his preparation.
"Pace, that's something that's been emphasized since I got here this summer," said Pickett when asked about those conversations. "Getting into stuff quicker, making my reads faster, and stuff like that. That's gonna be really big for me."
Pickett's tempo might actually be his biggest strength as an offensive player. He's never sped up by defenders, and he's excellent at alternating speeds when mapping things out in the halfcourt. He keeps his opponents guessing by never running at the same pace. Here, he stops in transition for a second by turning his back to the basket, causing New York's defense to relax, before exploding forward for the layup.
Jalen's film work and curious mind paid immediate dividends in Summer League. He appeared perfectly comfortable operating under the confines of the 24-second shot clock in his first NBA-level test. He's always one to pass up a good shot for a great shot, as the old anecdote goes.
Here's a great example.
Pickett had the opportunity to toss up a baseline jumper against the Milwaukee Bucks, by all means a solid look. Instead, with just 9 seconds left on the shot clock, the New York native weaved his way into a pick-and-roll with Kamagate and calmly sunk a floater over the top of 7'6 Tacko Fall's skyscraper arms.
Rule changes may alter how Jalen operates in the halfcourt, but the 23-year-old's patience will never waver.
On top of having a polished pick-and-roll game, Pickett's the rare type of point guard who can play with his back to the basket. A real throwback look.
That aspect of his offensive bag was similarly affected by the shorter clock. He'd need to be quicker and wiser as a post-up player in the NBA. Yet another adjustment to the way plays the game.
"Just picking my spots on where I can do that. Where I can apply and impose my will, I guess, definitely hit a smaller guy or so," Pickett told Nuggets.com. "Just working on my face-up, more from the halfcourt. And then when we get down more in the halfcourt sets, then I could do more post-up stuff."
There's ample reason to believe in Pickett in the NBA. He's succeeded at every level of basketball he's played in, transferring up to Penn State from Siena of the MAAC. Then, as a Nittany Lion, Jalen became one of the most decorated hoopers in the NCAA.
Consistently making shots from behind the NBA three-point line and adjusting his pace in the halfcourt—both in the pick-and-roll and on post-ups—are the final steps in his evolution as he steps up to the plate.
The Nuggets are in full belief that he'll make those changes accordingly. Particularly Jim Clibanoff, Vice President of Denver's scouting team and one of the many voices responsible for selecting Pickett in the second round of the 2023 NBA draft.
"[He] has an NBA readiness factor, which you can feel comfortable seeing him, superimposing him on an NBA floor," Clibanoff explained to Nuggets.com. "Jalen Pickett's a man when he's out there. He's fully developed. He is self-aware enough, and self-awareness is a very important factor of the whole process.
"He's very, very confident. He's very methodical because he knows what his limitations are, and he's still able to have his strengths outperform any kind of weaknesses he has. So, I think his learning curve will be a lot easier to stomach, and thus feel a comfort level of putting him on the floor."
Expectations won't be out of whack for Pickett in his rookie season, which is something that Clibanoff alluded to later in the conversation. The 23-year-old may have the feel of a 10-year veteran, but he's still a rookie. The Nuggets will be patient with his development as he acclimates to the NBA setting. But there's confidence within the organization about what he can become, and how he could help elongate Denver's championship window. He exited Summer League with sterling averages: 12.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game on 53.1 shooting from the field and 42.9 percent from deep.
Pickett can't wait for the opportunity.
"Playing with so many great players, honestly," Pickett responded when asked about what he's looking forward to. "Playing with the reigning champions, going into different arenas, and just being able to compete against the best players in the world.
"I'm really excited for my first year."